By Matthew Arrojas – Reporter, South Florida Business Journal
June 23, 2020 | LINK TO ARTICLE
A citywide crackdown on businesses following safety guidelines resulted in the shutdown of three Miami restaurants on Friday night by police.
As new cases of Covid-19 continue to spike in Florida and across the tri-county region, government officials are ramping up enforcement of precautionary measures to prevent another shutdown.
With these more severe punishments – particularly in Miami-Dade County – it’s important that restaurateurs ensure they are in compliance with the new coronavirus-related guidelines like mask requirements, social distancing mandates and maximum capacity rules, said Marbet Lewis, founding partner of Coral Gables-based Spiritus Law.
Lewis has spent the last three months guiding business owners through the new regulations. She told the Business Journal what some of the more common pitfalls have been for food and beverage businesses, and how they can be avoided.
Customer congregation and traffic flow
Nearly every dine-in restaurant in America has a lobby area where people must wait to be seated. While that’s long been the norm, having groups of people standing around next to each other now will raise a red flag to regulators, who could issue a citation or shut down the business entirely, Lewis said.
The 50% maximum capacity guideline applies primarily to the seating of customers inside the restaurant, but owners should also restrict how many people can wait inside until they are seated, she added.
One way to do so is create marked waiting areas for individual parties and ask others to wait outside.
“That heavy emphasis on enforcement up front sets the tone that this is a restaurant that takes social distancing seriously, and people are more likely to comply,” she said.
Another obstacle for restaurant staff is the flow of patrons and employees inside, Lewis said. It used to be common to spread the tables a server would work across the establishment, but Lewis said it now makes more sense to designate employees to certain areas so there’s less interaction between customers and staff, and less intermingling among servers themselves.
Floor plan changes can also help direct traffic away from groups, similar to how grocery stores have created lanes for shoppers.
Spot the problem to fix it
With decreased staffing due to capacity restrictions, it’s easy for some violations to go unnoticed for restaurateurs.
Lewis recommends that owners use their own security footage to identify zones were there is too much congregation.
“Reviewing those tapes after busy nights can help you identify and anticipate those problem areas,” she said.
Restaurant owners can also increase the number of hosts they have on staff. These employees are most likely to notice gathering crowds and are likely best trained to deal with noncompliant customers.
Accept that things are sometimes out of your control
The problems likely to get restaurants in trouble tend to not be fully in the owner’s control, Lewis said. Customers ignoring or blatantly disobeying the guidelines aren’t uncommon.
“Right now we are at the point where we were given blueprints for how to weather the storm… but now we’re noticing the flaws in those plans,” she said.
Lewis said she believes that as long as it’s clear the restaurant owner was attempting to comply, and it’s obvious that the correct protocols were in place, county and city officials are less likely to issue a citation or close the restaurant.
Forced shutdowns are likely reserved for offenders who didn’t take the necessary steps at all to prevent the problems.
Penalties could increase
Miami-Dade County shut down three restaurants since county Mayor Carlos Giménez instituted his zero-tolerance stance last Thursday.
“A lot of businesses spent a lot of money getting reopened, so taking that step backward now can be catastrophic for these businesses,” Lewis said.
But even harsher penalties could be on the horizon if restaurants continue to be cited, she said. One devastating blow would be the revoking – either temporary or permanent – of an establishment’s liquor license. It’s a hardline stance she’s already seen in Texas and New York.
Lewis said she believes that punishment is likely to be implemented in Florida in coming weeks if more establishments don’t enforce guidelines. She added that this punishment would only be reserved for those with multiple or egregious infractions.